In Defense of the Web of Life

Photo by Jay Kranyik

IN A TIME-HONORED EXERCISE at nature day camps, a naturalist asks each child to play the role of an animal or plant, anything from human to hawk to lichen. The children take hold of a very long piece of string, which travels back and forth across the circle, tracing connections between predator and prey, eventually making a huge web. But then as individual critters go extinct and drop their pieces of the string, the tiny ecosystem collapses, taking the human with it. The kids get the picture.

The southeastern United States is still blessed with incredibly diverse forest and river systems, but they are under intense pressures from development and logging. The small staff of the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project (SABP) aims to hold the line against ecosystem losses through organizing, advocacy, and litigation. Tracy Davids, the group’s director since 1998, is an ambitious and unapologetic defender of all things wild. The first person in her family to attend college, she went on to get a law degree, which she puts to good use at SABP. The group is based in Asheville, North Carolina.

Where did your connection with the outdoors come from?

Tracy Davids: I grew up in southern New Hampshire. My dad is a hunter and fisherman, and we’d go out almost every weekend, fishing, looking for deer, checking out ponds. It wasn’t about the “environment” for me. It was just an appreciation for the fresh fish, venison, and wild game we put on the table.

At what point did you decide that you wanted to work for the environment?

I had visited Montana, and I was just bowled over by the wide-open spaces, the small human population, and its amazing beauty. When I came back to Boston, it was wall-to-wall people everywhere. And I saw all the pavement, concrete, steel, and glass. When I saw this bird checking between the cracks in the sidewalk, looking for something to eat, I realized that what we are doing to this planet is so sad.

What I really loved about my work as a lawyer was advocating for the underdogs, and communicating to those people exactly what their rights and responsibilities were. With SABP I’m using my communication and advocacy skills representing the ultimate underdog — biodiversity. Plants and animals are the truly voiceless in our community.

How is biodiversity faring in the Southeast?

The number one reason we’re losing species diversity is habitat loss. People are moving here for the quality of life and the cheaper land, so development is just exploding. Also, air pollution from coal-fired power plants in the Ohio and Tennessee valleys is affecting our high-elevation spruce-fir forests. The trees are bathed in this acidic mist that’s killing them rapidly.

What are the prospects for biodiversity under the new U.S. Congress?

Endangered and native species protection is still going to be a battle, but now at least we will have a Congress with an open ear and an open mind.

Some say that greens overuse litigation. What’s your view?

When you need a screwdriver, you use a screwdriver, and when you need a hammer, you use a hammer. Litigation is one of those tools. When it’s appropriate and strategic, it’s fantastic. In our case, because we focus heavily on public lands, we are working with a lot of government agencies. I can tell you, if agencies did their jobs, and did them right according to current law, there would be no need for litigation. And SABP would never have come to life.

Fifteen years ago our founders learned about a timber sale in a roadless area in western North Carolina. They found some deficiencies with the Forest Service’s environmental assessment and called the agency to task on it. When they started to look around at other forests in the Southeast, they noticed that such violations were prevalent. They saw that the agency needed citizens to step in to provide comment, guidance, and direction toward better management plans for the national forests. So that’s what we do. When we find a legal violation, we pursue it to the letter of the law. We expect our government to prosecute criminals for breaking the law, so why shouldn’t we hold our federal agencies to that standard?

You’ve said that SABP is doing its best work ever. How do you mean?

We are empowering more and more people every day to get involved in protecting our forests and native wildlife. It’s really about the people. When we can help thirteen hundred citizens in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, submit comments on a proposed timber sale that is going to have a big impact on their economy — it’s nearly 100 percent tourism-based — that is huge. They didn’t even know the sale was happening until we brought it to their attention, and then the response just took off. We were there to support them with resources and guidance, but they did the rest. And those people have sent the Forest Service back to the drawing board to create an alternative plan. The upshot is that the community is now pursuing a national scenic area designation as a permanent solution.

How do you explain the big response?

People in southern Appalachia have an incredible sense of place. But there is also the quality of life issue and the private property rights issue. Then there is the economy. People come to Blowing Rock because it is an amazingly beautiful place.

Would you add anything else to that list of what’s at stake in preserving biodiversity?

Well, for me and for those of us here at SABP, it’s the belief that plants and animals have their own intrinsic value.

What’s the smallest critter you’ve defended?

Probably the spruce-fir moss spider, which is a tiny tarantula. It’s endangered due to the loss of those high-elevation spruce-fir forests, so we’ve worked to get critical habitat listed under the Endangered Species Act on all peaks in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia above 5,400 feet — about nine thousand acres in all.

What might your typical day at work look like?

A day could range from ground-truthing a timber sale, holding a public-outreach event or a Forest Watch workshop, to climbing in a plane with the folks from SouthWings to do a flyover of a proposed timber sale in a national forest.

Have you made personal sacrifices to do this work?

Absolutely none. I took an enormous pay cut to take this job, but my quality of life has vastly improved from when I was in private practice. I’ve really simplified my life and found that the less you have, the fewer headaches you have. It’s just so much better.

What is SABP’s vision?

We envision a world where folks in the Southeast appreciate the web of life in our region and defend, protect, and restore it. And that doesn’t mean that you have to do “on the ground” work for biodiversity. It can also mean taking steps to change the way you live to have less impact on the planet.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

Seeing a place that we have worked to protect get logged or roaded or mined or drilled. When I go back and have a look, it’s heartbreaking. To know that you did the very best you could and used all your tools and gave it your best shot, but it wasn’t enough — that is very, very hard.